Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 December 2005 - 4 January 2006
Issue No. 775
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Old blue Bedford trucks...

LOCATED in the deep south of Cairo (or Egypt), Shalateen represents one of the still standing strongholds of Egyptian- Sudanese trading. Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he sets out to discover this vibrant market.

Camel dealers from Sudan herd their animals all the way to Shalateen, where traders from across Egypt come to shop for all kinds of breeds. Each buyer is looking for something -- a camel for devouring tasks in the sun-striking arid climate of the desert, or may be a camel for entertaining purposes on a lovely beach resort.

But Shalateen, more than 1,000 kilometres south of Cairo, is not only about its renowned camel market; other forms of trade frequent the town. Old blue Bedford trucks unload their Sudanese goods, composed mainly of the finest spices and frankincense you can find. In exchange, they travel back loaded with sponge and light plastic fabricants. No wonder locals call them "sponge trucks".

Though unofficial population estimates of Shalateen reflect 10,000 inhabitants, a community mix reflects an enigma of cosmopolitanism. Three main ethnicities form the communal structure of the town -- Bisharin, Ababda and Rashayda. Bisharin is the largest ethnicity, and along with Ababda they are both part of a much larger tribe, Beja. Though both Ababda and Bisharin originally speak different dialects of a verbal language called To-bedawie, or rather Rotana as it is most commonly known, Ababda have adapted Arabic as their mother tongue while Bisharin still cling to Rotana. Most Bisharins living in Shalateen can communicate in Arabic as well.

In addition to both Ababda and Bisharin, there is Rashayda, a minority non-indigenous tribe originally from Saudi Arabia, from where they were expelled in 1846.

Because Shalateen lies in a frontier zone, permission is a must for foreigners. It can be obtained from Marsa Alam. Egyptians do not need permission. In addition, foreigners will be accompanied by a tourist police officer during their visit to the town.

photo: Mohamed El-Hebeishy

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